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    Give to God what is God’s: the church in a quandary

    Foundation Sunday/ AGM Sermon October 19, 2020
    Filed Under:
    Pr. Sebastian

    It’s a trap!

    Those Star War fans among you know General Ackbar’s famous line in the climactic final battle of Return of the Jedi.

    It’s a trap, we too might exclaim, as we hear today’s Gospel Reading,

    Which takes place in the courtyard of the Jerusalem temple, 

    the holiest place for observant Jews in Jesus’ time. 

     

    The day before, Jesus had entered the temple courtyard and had overturned the tables of the moneychangers, 

    Making a mess of the existing furniture,

    momentarily disrupting the commerce that was associated with the temple’s sacrifice system. 

    He created quite a ruckus, saying 

    “My house shall be called a house of prayer, 

    but you are making it into a hideaway for robbers.”

     

    The day after this disruption of the sanctity of this holy space, 

    Jesus is back at the temple, and speaking with the crowds. 

    He is also confronted by his enemies, 

    those who feel threatened by his words and actions, 

    those who dislike him. 

    They seek to expose him, and undermine him and turn 

    the tide of public opinion against him.

     

    Jesus is on the offensive though, with veiled criticisms in the form of parables against the religious hierarchy and their power. 

    He’s definitely not getting along with the establishment.

     

    His enemies in today’s text are named as two groups: 

    the Herodians and the Pharisees.

    The Herodians, otherwise unknown outside the Gospels,

    are likely a pro-Roman faction that supported the Jewish rulers of the dynasty of King Herod, who reigned by the graces of the Roman overlords.

     

    The Pharisees were a religious group who “rigorously applied Jewish law to everyday lives” and were quietly opposed to the Roman occupation, accepting it as necessary as long as there was no interference 

    with Jewish religion.

    So, two groups with two opposing agendas came together with one purpose, to trap Jesus “on the horns of the dilemma”.

     

    They start out with some good old insincere flattery:

    “We know you are a truthful, good teacher, 

    You show no favouritism to those in power 

    (in fact you criticize the religious hierarchy harshly!)

    So, wise teacher,

    Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”

     

    Now they were referring to the census tax demanded by Rome: 

    to deny paying it was treasonous to Rome,

    But if he supported its payment, 

    that would be considered offensive to the Jews 

    who despised the tax as a symbol of foreign occupation.

     

    Is it permitted to pay the tax?

    At its essence, it is a theological question, 

    not necessarily a political-economic one.

    It could be rephrased as

    “Does it accord with Torah to pay the tax?”

    Or perhaps even better, “would God agree with you paying a tax to someone who has taken the land that God gave to you?”

     

    Now Jesus knows: 

    the census tax can only be paid in Roman Currency.

    So he asks for someone to show the coin that is used to pay the tax.

    The silver coin, a denarius, worth about a day’s wages for a labourer, 

    would have had on it the image of the Emperor Tiberius Caesar: 

    the high priest of the Roman religion. 

     

    Interestingly, Jesus’ adversaries have no problem producing a coin with the graven image on it, they carry such a coin even in the temple, the most holy of places, 

    and so they are exposed as being hypocrites themselves. 

    Their dilemma question supposes Jesus can’t support both God and the Romans, but they have it both ways themselves.

     

    Hypocrites according to Jesus: 

    were those who practice piety in front of others, 

    Publicly signalling their almsgiving for example, 

    Or who use religious practice to elevate their self-standing in front of others.

    Their religion is not authentic or sincere, but just a show, 

    like an actor on stage.

     

    And then Jesus proclaims: 

    “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, 

    and to God the things that are God’s.”

    Mic drop.

    The trap explodes in the enemies’ faces. 

    Jesus outwits them and they leave, amazed.

     

    Now with this statement, at first, 

    Jesus shows himself as being a moderate.

    He is not an extremist or a Zealot (someone like Barrabas)

    Zealots were Jewish resistance fighters of the day who demanded a

    Radical decision between God and the Roman emperor in all spheres of life. They actively fought the Roman occupiers.

     

    Jesus was more moderate than the Zealots, for sure, 

    but did Jesus support the state?

    Certainly, the political implications of his preaching about the Kingdom of God, his religious socio-economic teachings, 

    and his lifestyle as a wandering peasant-prophet was revolutionary, and counter-establishment.

    He ultimately was crucified as a traitor to the state by the Romans.

     

    His statement:

    Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, 

    and to God the things that are God’s.”

    Is quite radical in a way, to the hearers now, as today.

     

    Now Jesus is not saying that the Emperor’s things 

    and God’s things are equal! 

    Like: there is two halves of the pie, 

    and one half belongs to Caesar and the other half to God.

    No, Jesus is implying (and has been in the rest of his teaching) 

    that Caesar’s realm is much less than God’s realm!

    God’s realm is all-encompassing.

    All is God’s realm.

    The tax, all things considered, 

    is a pittance compared to the Kingdom of God. 

    Don’t be bothered by it. Just pay it. 

    You’ve got the coin in your pockets anyway, might as well: 

    give it away.

     

    It’s simple really: you owe taxes to earthly rulers. 

    That’s easy.

    But the heavenly ruler is owed so much more; heavenly things:

    like obedience, service and love of him, 

    love of neighbour, total dedication. 

    In the grand scheme of things it’s beyond the silly question of taxes, 

    it about a whole-life orientation, 

    and a prioritization of every breath you take, every move you make.

     

    Because we are created in the image of God.

    We belong to God.

     

    Whatever image the thing bears, it belongs to its bearer.

    Perhaps you can think of some modern smartphone that has Face ID, 

    or facial recognition to unlock the phone.

    That phone belongs to the person whose image is encoded on its security chip.

    God’s image is encoded on our own security chip and so we belong to God.

    Our whole person belongs to God.

     

    And if we belong to God, and all is part of God’s reign, 

    then things like death, taxes, buildings, temples, furnishings and the like can be dealt with as needed, but only if God is put first, all in all.

     

    >>>>>>>

    Which brings me to the matter at hand. 

    The subject of a Church’s Annual Meeting,

    Source of sleepless nights for pastors, Board Chairs and some parishioners alike.

     

    You know, the church is a funny business.

    The Church, 

    2000 years ago started as a movement criticizing religious hypocrisy: 

    that the priests had no concern for the average human, 

    were more concerned with outer piety and outward structures, 

    and were marginalizing slaves, women and the poor.

     

    And then the church became what it —itself had critiqued at the beginning,

    A place where the institution is at the centre,

    Where the structures and the power, money and prestige 

    needed to be preserved,

    And where outward shows of piety whitewashed the colonialism, 

    the deals with the devil, 

    the subjugating, and marginalizing.

     

    Probably if Jesus would have come again at many points in history, 

    or maybe even today, 

    he would have disavowed the Church erected in his name.

    Turning over the tables,

    Exhibiting perhaps some of the anger we seem from atheists 

    or those hurt by the church who attack the church and the privileges it enjoys.

     

    Like tax exempt status for Churches with buildings, 

    Without which many, if not most, would fold.

    A large portion of unstated revenues for churches are tax exemptions…which is ironic, given Jesus’ admonition to pay taxes, 

    and to give to God’s what is his.

     

    Churches are afforded tax privileges not granted to other charities today for historical reasons, as they originated at a time when churches and church-run charities were the only game in town, 

    at a time before Medicare, pension plans and so on. 

    Furthermore, churches were and are still seen to have social benefit for the good they do in the community 

    (although most now are too small and dying to do anything more than keep their doors open in their palliative state).

    A small minority of churches have architectural and artistic merit which  attract businesses and tourism by boosting a city’s public profile.

     

    As we’ve seen with other Lutheran churches in Kitchener-Waterloo over the past 5 years, with closures and mergers dominating, 

    Notwithstanding the growth and expansion years of the 1940s and 1950s, 

    70 years later the trends in church-land are clearly headed in the opposite direction, 

    with the effects of COVID accelerating economic processes.

    And the 1950s, despite its few lovers, are not coming back.

     

    What would our forebears say if they were to see today 

    the situation of the North American church? 

    What would they grieve the most?

    And conversely, what do we today grieve the most 

    about our forebears’ church, and the decisions they made?

     

    These days, besides the relatively easy choices of tear-down or merger,

    How do we resist seeing the church (building) as a museum needing to be preserved?

    How do we avoid the temptation to make an idol of the physical structures, or turning what is man-made, 

    into something that we think Jesus himself instituted 

    (but would probably have overturned).

     

    How do we get from a frozen, and scared status-quo position to a re-discovery of the Christian movement which changed the globe in its first few centuries, 

    before becoming ossified in its own structures and self-preservation?

    How do we discover our passion for mission 

    when we’re so concerned about paying the bills, fixing cracks, 

    filling committee seats and ensuring rota schedules are topped up?

     

     

    I think we need to stop hoarding.

    And to remember the preschool adage, 

    that sharing is caring.

     

    In the Eucharist, the bread, the body of Christ, 

    is taken, blessed, broken open, and shared.

     

    And so too, we need to take our structures, our beloved structures, 

    and be willing to have them taken, blessed, broken and shared for the good of God’s mission in the world, 

    which is happening and will continue to happen despite our navel-gazing, endless discussion about trifles, and procrastination.

    Broken open for and with the community, 

    shared with willing partners, 

    who can teach us things, as we teach them.

     

    Our conservative traditions have served us well over the decades, 

    but the realities of the changing world are rapidly overtaking our structures, and we are not moving quickly enough to seize the best of the past and move into the future, 

    or as our vision statement says, 

    to blend tradition and innovation.

    The unofficial motto at St. Matthews may be: “We were big once“, 

    or as city officials kidded us on Friday, 

    we’re “Land barons”.

     

    All good and well, but 

    Blessed with riches of land and architectural beauty,

    Our main objective cannot be to preserve a museum,

    But to strive for mission for and with others, 

    sharing God’s love as a caring community into the future,

    With partners, who can help carry our burdens, as we help carry theirs.

     

    So that St. Matthews may be a place where community gathers, 

    strangers far and near, praising God’s inclusive love,

    Focussing on how as a body of Christ, 

    we are a living temple 

    (More than just a building of stones)
    (built on Christ, our Lord, 

    who challenges us to 

    Give therefore to the earthly rulers what is theirs,

    and to God the things that are God’s.” 

    Amen.

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